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Comment & Analysis | Sport

‘The most unpredictable GAA Championship in years’

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THE story goes that when the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai was asked about the significance of the French Revolution almost 200 years after the event, he replied that it was too soon to say.

He would have been hard pressed to get a gig as a GAA talking head, a role where a jerk of the knee to the game you’ve just watched is more important than a nod of the head to more than 125 years of history.

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We have had to listen this year to proclamations that a few easy wins for Mayo, Dublin, Kerry and Cork meant that the championship was now entirely predictable, the preserve of an exclusive band of teams that simply had too many resources to ever again lose to smaller counties.

It was amusing, this idea that football would bore us to disinterest at a time when the past five All-Irelands have been won by five counties.

Even if the four provincial championships were to follow a script enlivened only briefly by Cork and Kerry’s annual grudge match, there would have been much to look forward to from the August bank holiday weekend to late September, when the best teams gathered to do or to disappear.

And then, when you least anticipated it, came a glorious rebellion in that storied hollow on the hillside in Clones.

Monaghan are one of those counties that have proven too small to snare Sam Maguire but nonetheless have a tradition exemplified by their glorious decade of defiance from 1979 to 1988.

We were told at one point last year that this Donegal side would not have been beaten by any team from that 125 years of history, that like the author of some daft self-help book, they had designed a system that rendered defeat impossible.

It is true that they played compelling football in 2012, particularly in those crushing third quarters against Kerry and Cork, but my friends, as the Offaly footballers of 1982 proved beyond argument, there will never be a football team that cannot be beaten.

And we were left slapping the table and laughing at the good of it as Monaghan quite simply played the champions off the St Tiernach’s Park sod, handing Jim McGuinness only the second championship defeat of his tenure.

The simple joy to be derived from one of the most famous victories we will ever witness did not come from begrudgery of Donegal – although there will always be a degree of jealousy of the reigning All-Ireland champions from the other 31 – but rather from such a timely reminder that even in the modern era, there is still no limit to what the conviction and guile of any decent group of footballers can achieve.

There is no doubt that Monaghan were helped by the recruitment of Malachy O’Rourke, who belongs to that rare band of managers who improve every team they manage. There is no doubt that Monaghan were well prepared and got it tactically spot on.

But there is also no doubt that the cornerstone of their superiority was raw bravery, a hunger to win every loose ball backed with zero respect for the reputation of the opponent contesting it.

And that is the joy of what Monaghan have given us – a timely reminder that the size of the fight in the footballer can still outweigh the size of the population of his county or the size of its bankroll or backroom team.

That such defiance and astonishing self-belief came from this group of Monaghan players only adds to the marvel.

They have discovered in their careers that the only thing that will garner you more vitriol in Ireland than success is having the temerity to pour your heart into achieving success and then fall short.

These are the men that, mainly thanks to Seamus McEnaney, pushed one of the truly great Kerry teams in history to a score in 2007 and 2008, but reached the end of that great spell by flopping so badly against Tyrone in the 2010 decider and must have wondered in the two wilderness years that followed whether they would forever be scorned as nearly men.

Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus gave the McGee brothers their first chasing in recent memory, Rory Beggan kicked two crucial scores, but there was even more to admire in older stagers such as Dessie Mone playing the game of his days, in Paul Finlay getting through a string of smart possessions, in Dick Clerkin coming on and playing well, in Tommy Freeman kicking the last point.

There is justice for those that refuse to give up. There is excitement for the rest of us.

Donegal, for whom Colm McFadden is unlikely to have such an off day any time soon, are very much alive. Dublin remain slight favourites. Mayo burn with ambition. But there are nine other teams left, too.

And by summoning reserves of spirit that allowed them to equal and perhaps even surpass anything Eugene Hughes and Ciaran Murray and Ray McCarron achieved, Monaghan have underlined a lesson we should never have forgotten in the first place.

This is football, and to the cunning and courageous, no victory is impossible.

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Eamonn O Molloy
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Eamonn O'Molloy is Gaelic Football columnist withThe Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @EamonnOMolloy

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